Though rooted in reality—corruption is more overt in Haiti than in more sophisticated countries—Katz argues convincingly that this perception was ridiculously overblown. Though he by no means paints a flattering portrait of the hapless, stubborn Préval, he criticizes those who automatically assumed the Préval government was as venal as its predecessors. This was pretty much everybody. The corruption that pervaded the notorious Duvalier and Aristide regimes was assumed to be endemic to Haiti and Haitians, and relief operations were determined to keep their funds out of the Haitian government’s reach, no matter who was in charge.
The result? Donated money went directly to NGOs and organizations that were often fundamentally incapable of putting that money to its proper use. Millions of dollars in tens and twenties flowed to the American Red Cross, for instance, which was neither able nor eager to spearhead a comprehensive, long-term redevelopment effort; other aid organizations used the donations for salaries, capacity-building, and other non-earthquake-related matters. Katz estimates that of the $2.43 billion spent on ostensible humanitarian relief by the end of 2010, a mere 7 percent actually made its way to Haiti.
NGOs and relief operations were disorganized and frantic; the aid they rendered was haphazard and often useless. (“To force food out while maintaining distance from crowds,” Katz writes, “the US Navy threw boxes of bottled water and rations from hovering helicopters until other responders complained that this method was itself causing panic.”) They based their priorities on things the media had reported, few of which were true: that Haitians were in danger of immediate starvation, for instance, or that the country was on the verge of riot.
Katz makes clear that direct aid to the Préval government was just as important to Haiti’s long-term future as were immediate donations of relief materials. Direct aid, he argues, would’ve helped strengthen an infrastructure that had been crippled by decades of political instability and helped lead to a sustainable recovery. But few donors were interested. Katz describes how, in the days preceding Bill Clinton’s conference, Préval made the rounds in Washington, explaining why the Haitian government—and, by extension, the Haitian people—would benefit from direct financial support. “At every stop, the president explained the need to build strong, well-funded institutions,” writes Katz. “At every stop, he was turned down.”
Throughout, Katz questions the wisdom of entrusting the reconstruction to people who didn’t live in Haiti, weren’t personally affected by the earthquake, and would be on the first plane out when telegenic tragedy struck elsewhere. There’s a telling chapter set at the March 2010 donor conference, where Préval sat through a series of speeches that only served to underscore how little control he would have over the rebuilding of his own country. The donors had their own ideas of how to “build back better,” epitomized by the words of Brad Horwitz, an American whose company owned one of Haiti’s largest cell-phone networks: “We need Haiti open for business.”
“Open for business” very specifically referred to the production of cheap garments. The plan for rebuilding Haiti involved luring garment factories that would potentially bring up to 100,000 jobs and catapult the country into the global economy. But garment companies would only move to Haiti to take advantage of poorly paid workers earning no more than $1.75 per day. So where was the benefit for ordinary Haitians? Some believed that “a low-wage job is better than none,” as an NPR story put it, which completely ignored the reality of Haiti’s vast informal economy. Katz effectively describes how most Haitians earned money here and there—selling fruit on the roadside, washing cars—and asks “how jobs that pay too little to save money, offer no security, and only in rare cases present a chance for training or advancement would be different from selling juice on the street, much less lead to an economic boom.”
Halfway through the book, Katz cites economist William Easterly, who, in his great book The White Man’s Burden, divides development theorists into Planners and Searchers. “A Planner thinks he already knows the answers,” writes Easterly. “A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors.” The Haiti response was dominated by Planners—and the international press in Haiti, with its penchant for easy solutions and clear answers to hard questions, was dominated by Planners, too. Many of those reporting on the disaster knew little about Haiti other than that it was broken, and gravitated toward those loud voices who claimed they knew how to fix it. As a result, their coverage failed to challenge the dominant narrative.